Letting Go of Expectations

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The next day the great crowd that had come to the festival heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, shouting, ‘Hosanna Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord—the King of Israel!’” (John 12: 12 – 13). 

The waving of palm branches and shouts of “hosanna” are signs of expectations. The first king of Israel, David, rode a donkey as a humble animal reflecting his identity as a shepherd king, The prophet Zechariah, five hundred years before Jesus would ride into Jerusalem on a donkey, promised, “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding a donkey” (Zechariah 9:9).

“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” Is taken directly from Psalm 118. It is a psalm written to welcome kings back to Jerusalem as they returned form a victorious from war. The crowd would place that image onto Jesus as he comes riding into town. The people are recognizing him as king and liberator. Expectations are high.

And yet their expectations go out the window, as the Jesus parade keeps moving. He rides past Pilate’s headquarters, no overthrow of power. His parade takes him to the temple where he makes a mess by turning over tables and passes judgment on the way their religion is being practiced. His ride takes him through the city of Jerusalem to outside the city gates to a hill called Calvary. The same crowd that shouted hosanna on Sunday will be the same ones who shout crucify him on Friday.

Expectations shattered.

He is a humble king whose way of ruling is the way of love.

It is a love that we will miss if we don’t let go of our expectations of what type of savior we think we need. Don’t let your expectations keep you from experiencing the love of God. Don’t let your assumptions of what you think God is supposed to be doing in this time to keep you from receiving what God has for you.

I know we all want normal. I want normal. I want to get back to living with clearly defined boundaries that keep everything nicely in place. I need a box for everything including God. But if Palm Sunday in a time of quarantine teaches us anything, it is that our expectations are sometimes wrong. Don’t let what you possess, possess you. Don’t let what you have come to define as normal, keep you from the new life that God wants to give you.

What expectation of normalcy do you need to lay down? What possession that has possessed you do you need to release? What sin do you need to lay down? What habit do you need to surrender? What assumptions do you need to just let go of?

The World Was Not Worthy

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Do you know what has gone to the wayside in our society? The photo album. When was the last time you sat down with the family and thumbed through an old collection of photos? I can’t remember.

The author of Hebrews is pulling out the photo album in chapter eleven. The author is flipping through the old family of faith photos and reminiscing on long-gone loved ones whose sojourn has made this world a better place.

He/she comes to the end and says, “They were put to death by stoning; they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated— the world was not worthy of them” (Hebrews 11: 37-38).

Every year on November 1, Christians around the world observe All Saints Day, which honors all saints of the church that have attained heaven. In my tradition, United Methodist, the first Sunday in November is the day to recognize All Saints Day. It is a day of remembrance, to recall the loved ones lost over the past year, to collectively remember the faithfulness of God in life and death, and that there is a future with hope, with God’s reign enduring forever. We will call out the names of those who have passed away, light a candle, and ring a bell in their honor.

In some ways they are the ones that “the world was not worthy.” They suffered much, they loved deeply, and they kept the faith. They kept promises and remained steadfast. We can probably list a multitude of reasons why we were not worthy of their time, presence, and love. And yet, God gifted them to us.

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The late William Stringfellow described saints as “those men and women who relish the event of life as a gift and who realize that the only way to honor such a gift is to give it away.”

They are the ones who have taught us that despair is no way to live. Hope is what keeps the heart beating. A life of judgment doesn’t go near as far as a life of forgiveness. Tearing down others is destructive but building up one another makes a community. Loving will always take one further than hate.

We are not worthy of their gifts. And yet, without them our walk toward sainthood would not be complete.

Blessed Are the Peacemakers

My niece wanted to be gymnast when she was younger. She tumbled, flipped, bounced, and jumped. One day she asked me to join her in standing on my head and walking across the room on my hands. I told her that after a certain age gravity and medical insurance did not allow it.

Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor suggest that Jesus should have asked the disciples to stand on their heads when he taught the Beatitudes. Because this was in fact what he was doing – asking them to look at the world upside-down.

Take a look:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5: 3 – 12).

It all sounds sort of upside down. Blessed are the poor, the mournful, the meek, the merciful, and the peacemakers……doesn’t seem to fit. Blessed are the hard workers, the ones who dry up their tears, the fighters, the ones with talent and money, and those with good looks. But blessed, happy, in favor with God for those who are persecuted……I don’t think that made Fortune Magazine’s article on rules for the good life.

And yet, Jesus is saying this is what life looks like from inside the kingdom of God. God’s reign is demonstrated in the lives of those who embody the beatitudes. The beatitudes are descriptive. They are a reflection of what it means to walk the way of Jesus.

In Matthew 16 Jesus says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Matthew 16: 24). The beatitudes is what it looks like to deny ourselves and take up our cross in the way of Jesus. In these opening words of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is describing what he sees when he looks at those who chose to follow him. Does he see you? Do you see yourself?

Again, Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor says, “The world looks funny upside down, but maybe that’s just how it looks when you’ve got your feet planted in heaven.” Blessed are those who stand on their heads, for they shall see the world as God sees it.

This way of seeing the world gives followers of Jesus a new way of dealing with violence. When violence shows up on our streets how do we respond? When it reveals itself in the killing of those who have taken on the responsibility to protect us what do we do? When it reveals itself in the lives of abused women and children? Immigrants? Minorities?

Violence engages us. Ben Bradlee, editor of the Washington Post said, “We don’t cover safe landings at Dulles Airport.” We are drawn to violence. We are voyeurs who peak through the blinds of our homes as those around us kill one another.

We have become a culture where violence is being encouraged when there are opinions or expressions we disagree with from people on all sides of the political divide. We can speak against ideas, without celebrating violence. Where violence is a problem, words really matter. The author of the letter of James says, “For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue – a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing” (James 3: 7 – 10).

How does love respond to violence? Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Violence breeds fear. Fear breads more violence and the cycle continues. But there is a perfect love that cast out fear. A love that extinguishes hate, that destroys violence. It is a love that strips violence of its power. We see it from Jesus on the cross. Jesus not only endured the cross but went to the deepest parts of hell and emptied evil of its power.

Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor tells a story about being at her nephew’s first birthday party. Will was round and as bald as Buddha and like every one year-old he liked being the center of attention. Love was his only expression. He gave it and he received it. At his age he thought that was the only way that the world functioned.

After cake and presents, Will showed off how pleased he was by doing a little twirling dance in the middle of a circle of adults. Jason, Will’s seven-year-old brother, had had enough. He charged into the middle of the circle, put both hands on Will’s chest and shoved. Will feel hard. His rear end hit first, followed by the thump of his head on the ground. He looked utterly surprised. No one had ever hurt him before, and he did not know what to make of it. His mother hugged away the pain and the tears and helped him to his feet. The first thing Will did was totter over to Jason. He knew Jason was the one who caused the violence. But since he hadn’t experienced it before, he wasn’t sure what to do next. So he did what he has always done. He put his arms around Jason and lay his head against the boy’s body. Taylor says, “What Will did to Jason put an end to the meanness in that room. What I wanted to do to Jason would only have multiplied it.”

Violence doesn’t start on the streets or back alleys. Violence starts in the heart. The real enemy isn’t the one who pushes us down but whatever it is inside of us that wants to push back. The apostle Paul challenges us, “Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all” (Romans 12:17). He goes on to say, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12: 21).

And this is how we respond to violence. Grief and anger are understandable, even unavoidable. Nevertheless, it is possible by standing in the grace of God to have our anger and grief turned into compassion for others. We saw it this past week as the Hall County community came together so beautifully. We see it in the work of Sacred Roots Farm and the ministry they do with women who have been rescued from sex-trafficking. We see it in the bridge-building ministry that we are involved with at Baker and Glover in a population that is predominately Hispanic/Latino. God is using Gainesville First UMC to be peace-makers.

There is still work to be done. There is still places in our world, our community, and in our homes where we are to practice peace-making. We are being called not to hide from violence, not to respond to violence with violence. We are to stare down violence and to love courageously. We are to work through the fear against evil and to strive against systems that oppress.

Blessed are the peace-makers, for they will be called children of God.

There is a moment in one of the Lord of the Rings books where after all the battles with evil had been fought and where the characters almost died. Sam turns to Frodo, “I thought you were dead and I thought I was dead!” Then, pausing to let the reality sink in that they almost died and yet they didn’t, Sam asks, “Is everything sad going to come untrue?” “Is everything sad going to come untrue?”

This is the promise embedded in the beatitudes. It is the way of life for those who are living in the upside down reality of God’s kingdom. The world with all of its violence and pain and hate will not prevail. The beatitudes are a bold declaration that when you think death is more powerful than life and fear is greater than love, Jesus says, “Everything sad is going to come untrue.”

I leave you with words from Jesus and a prayer that has been attributed to St. Francis of Assisi.

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (John 14:27).

Let us pray:

Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace; where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; and where there is sadness, joy. O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood, as to understand; to be loved, as to love; for it is in giving that we receive, it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life. Amen.